State v. Means

Decision Date06 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 26105.,26105.
Citation626 S.E.2d 348
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesThe STATE, Petitioner, v. Gerald MEANS, Respondent.

Attorney General Henry D. McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Charles H. Richardson, and Assistant Attorney General David A. Spencer, all of Columbia, and John R. Justice, of Chester, for Petitioner.

Acting Deputy Chief Attorney Wanda H. Carter, of the South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for Respondent.

Justice BURNETT:

We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the Court of Appeals' reversal of the conviction of Gerald Means (Respondent) based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction by the circuit court. We reverse.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A county grand jury issued the following indictment against Respondent in March 2001:

INDICTMENT FOR CRIMINAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE — AGGRAVATED

That Gerald Means did in Chester County on or about December 16, 2000, did [sic] commit an act of violence against one Natalie Flynn with whom he has two children.

Prior to Respondent's trial in August 2001, the solicitor moved to amend the indictment to ensure it properly alleged criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature (CDVHAN) by adding, in handwriting, the following emphasized phrase:

That Gerald Means did in Chester County on or about December 16, 2000 did [sic] commit an act of violence against one Natalie Flynn with whom he has two children, such act of violence being of a high and aggravated nature.

The solicitor believed the indictment was defective as originally issued and moved to amend it "prior to calling this case in order to avoid any unfair surprise to [Respondent and his counsel]." The solicitor further asserted the defect was merely a "clerical error" because the proposed amendment would not alter the nature of the offense charged.

Respondent objected to the untimely amendment of the indictment and noted the proposed change was in the charging language. Asked by the trial judge whether Respondent was prejudiced by the amendment, counsel stated "[w]e were prepared for criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, I have to admit that."

The trial judge granted the State's motion to amend the indictment. Respondent subsequently was convicted of CDVHAN and sentenced to nine years in prison.

A divided Court of Appeals vacated the conviction, concluding the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in the case due to the improper amendment of an insufficient indictment. State v. Means, Op. No.2003-UP-633 (S.C. Ct.App. filed October 23, 2003) (unpublished opinion). The majority reasoned the amendment changed the nature of the offense charged, transforming it from a charge of criminal domestic violence in which Respondent faced a maximum sentence of thirty days into a charge of CDVHAN in which the maximum sentence was ten years.1 The majority noted the offense of CDVHAN requires the State to prove an element not contained in a CDV charge, namely, at least one element of the common law crime of ABHAN.2 The majority found that the term "aggravated" in the indictment caption was insufficient to uphold the validity of the amended indictment.

ISSUE

Did the Court of Appeals err in vacating Respondent's conviction on the ground that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in light of State v. Gentry, 363 S.C. 93, 610 S.E.2d 494 (2005)?

LAW AND ANALYSIS

The State contends the Court of Appeals erred in vacating Respondent's conviction in light of Gentry, which we decided after the Court of Appeals decided the present appeal. We agree.3

As we recently explained,

In Gentry, we abandoned the view that, in criminal matters, the circuit court acquires subject matter jurisdiction to hear a particular case by way of a valid indictment by either a county or state grand jury. Under the former approach, except for certain minor offenses, the circuit court did not have subject matter jurisdiction in a criminal case unless there was an indictment which sufficiently stated an offense, the defendant had waived presentment of the indictment to the grand jury, or the charge was a lesser included offense of the crime charged in the indictment. Under that former approach, a defective or insufficient indictment could result in a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which is a matter that may be raised at any time, including on direct appeal, in a [post-conviction relief] action, or sua sponte by the trial or appellate courts.

In Gentry, taking our cue from the United States Supreme Court and in keeping with our view of subject matter jurisdiction in civil cases, we explained that the subject matter jurisdiction of the circuit court and the sufficiency of an indictment are two distinct concepts. "[S]ubject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong." Gentry, [363 S.C. at 100, 610 S.E.2d at 498]; see also Pierce v. State, 338 S.C. 139, 150, 526 S.E.2d 222, 227 (2000) (stating same principle); Dove v. Gold Kist, Inc., 314 S.C. 235, 237-38, 442 S.E.2d 598, 600 (1994) (stating same principle); S.C. Const. art. V, § 11 ("The Circuit Court shall be a general trial court with original jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, except those cases in which exclusive jurisdiction shall be given to inferior courts, and shall have such appellate jurisdiction as provided by law.").

In Gentry, then, we returned to our earlier view that an indictment is a "notice document," albeit one required by our state constitution and statutes. See S.C. Const. art. I, § 11 and art. V, § 22 [footnote omitted]; S.C.Code Ann. § 17-19-10 (2003) ("[n]o person shall be held to answer in any court for an alleged crime or offense, unless upon indictment by a grand jury" except in specified instances). The primary purposes of an indictment are to put the defendant on notice of what he is called upon to answer, i.e., to apprise him of the elements of the offense and to allow him to decide whether to plead guilty or stand trial, and to enable the circuit court to know what judgment to pronounce if the defendant is convicted. Gentry, [363 S.C. at 102-03, 610 S.E.2d at 500]; S.C.Code Ann. § 17-19-20 (2003). This required notice is a component of the due process that is accorded every criminal defendant. See U.S. Const. amend. V; S.C. Const. art. I, § 3. Given that the sufficiency of an indictment will no longer be considered an issue of subject matter jurisdiction which may be raised at any time, we applied the general rule regarding preservation of error and held that a defendant must raise an issue regarding the sufficiency of the indictment before the jury is sworn in order to preserve the error for direct appellate review. Gentry, [363 S.C. at 101, 610 S.E.2d at 499] (citing S.C.Code Ann. § 17-19-90 (2003)).

Evans v. State, 363 S.C. 495, 507-09, 611 S.E.2d 510, 516-17 (2005); see also State v. Smalls, 364 S.C. 343, 346-48, 613 S.E.2d 754, 756-57 (2005) (applying Gentry and Evans to hold that the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction to accept a guilty plea where the defendant had not been indicted for the charge to which he pled guilty, but signed a sentencing sheet which constituted a written waiver of the right to have the charge presented to a grand jury and also signified the defendant had been notified of the charge to which he pled guilty).

We conclude, pursuant to Gentry, the Court of Appeals erred in finding the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction in Respondent's case. An indictment which allegedly is improperly amended no longer raises a question of subject matter jurisdiction; it instead raises a question of whether a defendant properly received notice he would be tried for a particular crime. We take this opportunity to explain how, post-Gentry, the State's pretrial motion to amend an indictment should be analyzed. The analysis remains largely the same as it was under pre-Gentry law, although it is now driven by concepts of notice and due process.

A defendant has a constitutional and statutory right to demand that a properly constituted grand jury consider his case and decide whether to issue a sufficient indictment. "The primary purposes of an indictment are to put the defendant on notice of what he is called upon to answer, i.e., to apprise him of the elements of the offense and to allow him to decide whether to plead guilty or stand trial, and to enable the circuit court to know what judgment to pronounce if the defendant is convicted." Evans, 363 S.C. at 508-13, 611 S.E.2d at 517-19 (citing Gentry, 363 S.C. at 102-03, 610 S.E.2d at 500, and also citing cases in which the Court has emphasized the importance of the grand jury process). Furthermore, a sufficient indictment prevents later retrials for the same offense in contravention of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy and prevents a prosecutor from usurping the power of the grand jury by ensuring a defendant is tried for the crime for which he was indicted. State v. Tabory, 262 S.C. 136, 139, 202 S.E.2d 852, 853 (1974); State v. Guthrie, 352 S.C. 103, 108, 572 S.E.2d 309, 312 (Ct.App.2002), overruled on other grounds, Gentry, 363 S.C. 93, 610 S.E.2d 494; People v. Grega, 72 N.Y.2d 489, 534 N.Y.S.2d 647, 531 N.E.2d 279, 282 (1988); State v. Lewis, 36 S.W.3d 88, 97 (Tenn.Crim.App.2000). The sufficiency of an indictment is examined objectively, from the viewpoint of a reasonable person, and not from the subjective viewpoint of a particular defendant. This principle does not mean a defendant's understanding of an indictment is irrelevant; that understanding, or lack thereof, is a factor for the court to consider in its sufficiency determination. However, a defendant's purported lack of...

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